Giving content to the right to a healthy environment: Human rights and Chemicals and hazardous substances
Author: Eduardo Caldera-Petit
The constructive spirit prevailing following the two world wars of the 20th century paved the way for international consensus on establishing universal human rights to be enjoyed by all peoples and nations. A Universal Declaration on Human Rights (UDHR) adopted in 1948, served as the basis for the development and adoption in 1966 of both the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) and the International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights (ICESCR). The UDHR, together with these two legally binding treaties, make up the International Bill of Human Rights, which “form the cornerstone of an elaborate structure of international human rights agreements covering a broad range of issues” (Lawrence, 2012, p. 35)
The International Bill of Human Rights represents one of the most exemplary efforts of the international community to build a new world order grounded on the universal respect for human rights and the recognition of their essential character for the achievement of world peace. These efforts toward building an international human rights framework have continued to evolve since the UDHR. Additional human rights have been proposed for adoption by different groups, including collective rights such as the right to development, the right to peace, and the right to a healthy environment.
The importance of a right to a healthy environment is paramount. Unquestionably, a safe and healthy environment is essential for the enjoyment of most civil, political, economic, social, and cultural rights. Environmental degradation threatens not only the people of today but also future generations. However, notwithstanding the importance of environmental protection, many experts argue that such collective rights listed above, including the right to a healthy environment, should be framed around social policy and not as legally enforceable claims (Lawrence, 2012).
On the other hand, others maintain that the right to a healthy environment should be recognized as a human right. Positioning it as a human right provides an enhanced status to environmental protection when assessed against other development and human rights priorities. Thus, States would not be able to argue that the fulfillment of other human rights could be prioritized at the expense of environmental degradation and it will reaffirm the principle that environmental protection is the foundation of sustainable development and life.
To date, the right to a healthy environment has gained constitutional recognition and protection in more than 100 States (UNEP, 2021). At the international level, the right to a healthy environment was promulgated for the first time in 1972 at the United Nations (UN) Stockholm Conference on the Human Environment, and more recently in 2022, it has been recognized as a human right by the UN General Assembly in a historic move. Nevertheless, the right to a healthy environment had been already acknowledged in many other international declarations, demonstrating a widespread and consistent state practice that could have contributed to the creation of a right to a healthy environment as a principle of customary international law before being adopted by the UN General Assembly (Nanda & Pring, 2012).
Giving content to the right to a healthy environment is also an important aspect of its recognition as an enforceable human right. This essay will deal with the impact of chemicals and hazardous substances on human rights and the importance of the sound management of chemicals within the framework of the right to a healthy environment.
1. The global context of chemicals
Chemicals are part of our everyday lives: from pharmaceuticals and plant protection products to the production of cars, computers, and textiles, chemicals have helped improve human health, food security, productivity, and quality of life worldwide. On the other hand, many chemicals have hazardous properties which can cause significant adverse impacts on human health and the environment if they are not adequately managed (UNEP, 2019).
Pollution is the largest source of premature death in the developing world, causing approximately three times more deaths than HIV/AIDS, tuberculosis, and malaria combined (UNEP; UNOHCHR). In 2021, the World Health Organization (WHO) estimated that 2 million lives were lost in 2019 due to exposures to selected chemicals, with nearly half of deaths attributable to lead exposure and resulting cardiovascular diseases. However, data is only available for a small number of chemical exposures, and people are exposed to many more chemicals every day (WHO, 2021). Similarly, according to 2018 data compiled by the European Environment Agency (EEA), approximately 62 percent of the total volume of chemicals consumed in the European Union (EU) in 2016 were hazardous to health (UNEP, 2019).
Furthermore, the production and consumption of chemicals are growing exponentially, with an increasing share now in low- and middle-income countries, many of which may have limited regulatory capacity. In 2017, the chemical industry was worth more than US dollars 5 trillion and by 2030, this will double (UNEP, 2019). This makes it more critical than ever to achieve the sound management of chemicals and waste to protect human health and the environment.
1.1 Main Chemicals & Waste Conventions
Several UN conventions address the management and disposal of hazardous substances and their waste throughout their lifecycle. The Basel Convention on the Control of Transboundary Movements of Hazardous Waste and their Disposal, the Rotterdam Convention on the Prior Informed Consent Procedure for Certain Hazardous Chemicals and Pesticides in International Trade, the Stockholm Convention on Persistent Organic Pollutants (POPs), and the Minamata Convention on mercury.
These international agreements have created a global chemical and waste framework for managing and eliminating specific chemicals and wastes and identifying and addressing chemicals of the highest concern at the international level. Nevertheless, the progress has been uneven and implementation gaps remain (UNEP, 2019). Just over two dozen hazardous substances are regulated under these international treaties. At the same time, the EU estimated in 2001 that there were over 1,000 substances of very high concern, not including hundreds of hazardous pesticides and various other potential pollutants (Human Rights Council, 2016).
The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development includes several Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and targets directly or indirectly relevant for chemicals and waste, including target 12.4 on the achievement of the environmentally sound management of chemicals and all wastes throughout their life cycle, and the reduction of their release to air, water and soil to minimize the impacts on human health and the environment (UNEP, 2019). These linkages with the 2030 Agenda further connect the sound management of chemicals and waste with the fulfillment of human rights.
2. Human Rights most affected by chemicals and hazardous substances
The lifecycle of hazardous substances (toxics and wastes that have adverse effects on human health and the environment), from manufacturing and transporting to use, trade, and disposal, can enormously impact the enjoyment of fundamental human rights (UNEP; UNOHCHR). Different chemicals impact human rights in different ways:
for example, the issue of chemicals in products centers on the right to information. The elimination of lead paint advances the right of every child to the highest attainable standard of physical and mental health. Initiatives on nanomaterials and electronics are closely linked with the rights of workers to a safe and healthy workplace (IPEN and Pesticide Action Network, 2017, p. 1).
Furthermore, as is the case for human rights issues, vulnerable populations are the most affected groups from toxic threats: children, women, indigenous peoples, workers (mainly migrant workers), and low-income and minority communities. Therefore, highlighting the linkages between human rights and chemicals management is essential. In the words of the former UN Special Rapporteur on the implications for human rights of the environmentally sound management and disposal of hazardous substances and wastes “[e]very State has binding human rights obligations that create a duty to take active measures to prevent the exposure of individuals and communities to toxic substances” (United Nations, 2019).
The analysis below focuses on a selection of five human rights explicitly contained in the ICCPR and the ICESCR to demonstrate how chemicals can directly impact their fulfillment. Nevertheless, there are other core human rights affected by chemical pollution. There are also other international human rights agreements that provide additional protections to these human rights but will not be considered in this essay
2.1. The Right to Life
Article 6 of the ICCPR establishes the right to life “Every human being has the inherent right to life. This right shall be protected by law. No one shall be arbitrarily deprived of his life” (United Nations, 1966). The existence of an adequate environment free from toxic and hazardous substances is one of the necessary conditions for the enjoyment of the right to life without acts and omissions that might cause unnatural or premature deaths.
Chemical pollution is a significant cause of human disease and premature deaths. Potential adverse health effects of chemical exposures include acute poisonings, cancers, reproductive and neurodevelopmental disorders, and endocrine system disruption. (UNEP, 2019). The Human Rights Committee has recognized that pollution represents a threat to the right to life and failure to take adequate measures to limit the harmful effects of exposure to hazardous substances on human health and wellbeing means a breach of State obligations to respect, protect, and fulfill all human rights (UNEP; UNOHCHR).
2.2. The Right to Health
The right to health is included in article 12 of the ICESCR: “the right of everyone to the enjoyment of the highest attainable standard of physical and mental health” (United Nations, 1966). Chemicals and hazardous substances might harm human health, particularly vulnerable populations such as pregnant women, infants, and children. Therefore, the right to health requires the prevention and reduction of exposure to hazardous substances.
The WHO has estimated that around 19 per cent of all cancers are attributable to environmental factors including indoor and outdoor ambient air pollution, second-hand smoke, asbestos, dioxins and other pollutants found in industrial emissions, constituents found in food and drinking water such as pesticide residues, arsenic or aflatoxins, and ionizing and non-ionizing radiation (UNEP, 2019). Other potential effects of chemicals, for example, endocrine-disrupting chemicals, may include low semen quality among young men, genital malformations, adverse pregnancy outcomes, neurobehavioural disorders, cancers, obesity and type 2 diabetes (Bergman, Heindel, Jobling, Kidd, & Zoeller, 2013).
In this respect, the Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (CESCR) has specifically identified a violation of the obligation to protect by States where there is a “failure to enact or enforce laws to prevent the pollution of water, air and soil by extractive and manufacturing industries.” (IPEN and Pesticide Action Network, 2017, p. 3).
2.3. The Right to Food
The right to food is included in Article 11 of the ICESCR as: “the right of everyone to an adequate standard of living for himself and his family, including adequate food, clothing and housing, and to the continuous improvement of living conditions […]” (United Nations, 1966). Adequate food refers not only to quantity but also quality, and both are impacted by chemicals pollution. Food should not contain toxic chemicals that would then be ingested affecting human health. In the same way, chemicals pollution affect soils, and therefore, food production. Therefore, States must protect this right and ensure that measures are in place to avoid chemical contamination.
While on the one hand, chemicals play a major role in food production by supporting plant protection through the use of safe pesticides, as well as enabling food conservation, soils worldwide have been damaged by mining, agriculture and industrial wastes that contain heavy metals, including lead, cadmium, chromium, mercury and copper. These substances damage soil quality and reduce the number of microorganisms that are critical to soil fertility, which is critical to produce food. Similarly, plastic litter has been linked to marine organism mortality and may also affect terrestrial animals, impacting the food chain and compromising food production (UNEP, 2019).
2.4. The Right to Information
The ICCPR recognizes the right to information on Article 19:
Everyone shall have the right to freedom of expression; this right shall include freedom to seek, receive and impart information and ideas of all kinds, regardless of frontiers, either orally, in writing or in print, in the form of art, or through any other media of his choice. (United Nations, 1966)
Accordingly, all persons should have appropriate access to information on hazardous substances to which they might be exposed.
However, adequate information about potential exposure to hazardous substances is not accessible to those affected, in particular individuals or groups in vulnerable situations. The Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights indicates that accurate information on the environmental health impacts of hazardous substances must be “readily available, in an accessible format and appropriate context, to all, in particular consumers, workers and other rights-holders […]” (UNEP; UNOHCHR, p. 4).
People should be able to make informed decisions regarding consumer products with knowledge on what hazardous substances they are exposed to in their homes, communities and workplaces. It is also important to have access to such information to give effect to other rights such as due process and seek remedy when necessary.
2.5. The Right to the enjoyment of favorable conditions of work
The ICESCR recognizes the “right of everyone to the enjoyment of just and favourable conditions of work […]” in Article 7 (United Nations, 1966). However, exposure to hazardous chemicals at the workplace put at risk the health and safety of workers. The UN Environment Programme has estimated that almost 1 million workers died due to exposure to hazardous substances (UNEP, 2019).
For example, agricultural workers may be exposed to high levels of pesticides while working in fields or in local communities or camps where they live. Miners are also highly exposed to hazardous chemicals, particularly in developing countries, as well as those individuals involved in artisanal and small-scale gold mining, where mercury is used to extract gold from ore or sediments. Building workers are exposed to high levels of chemicals from cleaning or construction products.
It has also been recognized that informal workers in the recycling industry are disproportionally exposed to hazardous substances. For instance, e-waste recyclers often do not use any personal protective equipment to protect them from the dangers brought by the processing of electronic wastes. The International Labor Organization (ILO) documents that the recycling process is carried out using bare hands, without masks, cleaning, crushing or heating the parts to extract the recyclable pieces (Center for International Environment Law).
The unsafe management of chemicals and hazardous substances is a global threat to the health of individuals and, therefore, it will impact the fulfillment of human rights, such as the right to life, the right to health, the right to food, the right to information and the right to the enjoyment of favorable conditions of work. Furthermore, the negative impacts of hazardous substances affect particularly vulnerable groups such as workers and indigenous and low-income communities: both in their workplaces and homes.
Since the UN Stockholm Conference on the Human Environment in 1972, the relationship between human rights and the environment has gained attention from States, international organizations and civil society. Although the right to a healthy environment has just been recently recognized as a human right, it is possible to identify the obligation of every State to prevent exposure to hazardous substances and wastes under international law from the rights and duties protected within the human rights framework.
Therefore, States may violate their obligations under international human rights law when they fail to adopt the necessary measures to prevent human exposure to pollution, toxic industrial chemicals, pesticides, wastes and other substances with intrinsic hazards, including by private actors. With many chemicals and hazardous substances not regulated under an internationally binding treaty, addressing the sound management of chemicals and wastes from a human rights perspective could be beneficial in mobilizing the international community to undertake concrete actions toward a toxic-free environment.
List of References
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Center for International Environment Law. (n.d.). Human Rights Impacts of E-Waste.
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IPEN and Pesticide Action Network. (2017). Beyond 2020: Chemical safety and human rights.
Lawrence, J. (2012). Human Rights. New York and San Jose: POTI and UPEACE.
Nanda, V., & Pring, G. (2012). The Environment and Human Rights. In International Environmental Law and Policy for the 21st Century (pp. 595-645). Leiden: Martinus Nijhoff Publishers.
(2019). Global Chemicals Outlook II. United Nations Environment Programme.
(2021). Advancing environmental rights. Retrieved from UNEP: https://www.unep.org/explore-topics/environmental-rights-and-governance/what-we-do/advancing-environmental-rights/what-0
UNEP; UNOHCHR. (n.d.). Human Rights and Hazardous Substances.
United Nations. (1966). International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. UN General Assembly.
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(2021). The public health impact of chemicals: knowns and unknowns – 2021 data addendum. WHO.
Author Short Bio
Eduardo Caldera-Petit is a Programme Management Officer at the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP). He has more than twelve years of experience in project management, capacity building and policy advisory at the United Nations, where he has led sustainable development and environmental projects in Africa, Latin America and the Caribbean regions. Before joining UNEP, Eduardo worked at the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) as a Programme Coordinator, and as a Coordination Officer at the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP). Eduardo holds a bachelor’s degree in international relations and graduate studies in International Economic Law. He speaks Spanish, English, French and Russian.